Idaho, the “land of whitewater” offers some of the most incredible experiences on rivers in the country. With a plethora of outfitters, even the most inexperienced enthusiasts can give whitewater rivers in Idaho a try, starting with the most basic Class I rapids up to Class III. While you’re out there, you might spot some of the incredible wildlife and plants in Idaho and experience some of the most incredible scenery in the country. But choosing the right river is critical for your safety and pleasure. This top list of Idaho whitewater rivers can help you decide where to head out.
1. Salmon River
Nick-named the “river of no return,” the Salmon River provides some of the most incredible whitewater rafting in Idaho as well as the country. The river happens to be one of the first Wild and Scenic Rivers designated in the nation by Congress and remains one of the most sought-after destinations for the sport.
The Salmon River is typically divided into three sections for whitewater courses, including the Main Salmon River, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and the Lower Salmon River. Each of these sections has various rapids from Class II to Class IV, but guides know which sections are safest for beginners versus intermediate and experienced rafters.
Ruby Rapid — Riggins Section of the Salmon River — Class II to IV Rapids
Named for the state’s stunning star garnets, the Ruby Rapid along the Salmon River generally ranks at Class II. However, when the water’s up, the rapid turns into a Class IV, best only attempted by experienced rafters. The Ruby Rapid pushes the current of the Salmon River during spring runoff against a sheer granite cliff, meaning you don’t dare face these waters without a lot of experience. But the rest of the year, folks who’ve never gone rafting before may tread these waters.
Black Creek — Main Salmon River — Class III to IV Rapids
Situated into the jaw-dropping Black Canyon along the Main Salmon River, the Black Creek Rapid peaks at a Class IV rapid. The rapid happens to be one of the newest in the state, formed by a 2011 creek blowout. At high water, the creek shifts into huge, rolling waves, then drops into technical rapids. For less experienced rafters, the narrow left line offers more safety than the center run, which pushes away from three massive hydraulics that line up back-to-back. The left isn’t so easy, either, and should not be attempted by beginners.
Slide — Lower Salmon River — Class V+ Rapids
Only suitable for highly experienced rafters, the Slide Rapid in Lower Salmon River springs from a less dangerous rapid to a Class V in high water. The Slide Rapid rarely sees commercial companies running through, thanks to that dangerous classification. If you do venture this way, only do so if you’ve got lots of experience and folks with similar experience to accompany you. The constriction created rapid comes toward the end of the river, too, with all the force of those 415 miles of the rest of Salmon River pushing it.
Sunbeam — Upper Salmon River — Class II to III Rapids
For a much more suitable course for beginners, head to Sunbeam in the Upper Salmon River. These rapids run from Class II to Class III. Here, casual rafters and beginners looking for a thrill can experience all the excitement without the danger. The unique rapid offers some incredible beauty, too, so you won’t miss out on the stunning views you’ll find elsewhere along the Salmon River.
Flight Simulator — East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon — Class IV to V Rapids
The Salmon River splits into several forks along the way, and in some areas, some impressive rapids emerge. This is true of the Flight Simulator Rapid in the East Fork of the South Fork run. The long rapid contains sustained Class IV to V whitewater stretching around 6 or 7 river bends. Below the entrance, the main crux of the rapids, easier rafting may be had for less experienced folks.
Hell’s Half Mile — Middle Fork Salmon River — Class IV Rapids
The Middle Fork of the Salmon River offers some of the most incredible views and most terrifying rapids of the river. Running through the Frank Church Wilderness, this section has earned fame for its 100 rapids in 100 miles. The Hell’s Half Mile offers challenging Class IV whitewater fit for experienced rafters only. The long, continuous S-bend during high water ends in a narrow canyon and hides some dangerous holes. At low water, the S-bend turns into an intense boulder garden that raises the excitement and exhaustion of rafters. Below the rapids, some of the most beautiful scenery of the West meet those who survive.
2. Snake River
Flowing through both Idaho and Oregon, the Snake River sinks into Hells Canyon, the deepest river canyon in North America. Along this river, particularly through Hells Canyon, the Snake River offers plenty of rapids for experienced and inexperienced enthusiasts alike.
Permits are required along certain sections of the river, so many folks opt to experience the Snake River via tours with professional guides. In fact, it’s advisable that anyone inexperienced do so. Beware that lotteries for certain parts of Snake River exist, meaning that boat tours fill up fast. Be sure to plan well ahead, as lottery entry begins in December for the following May to September season.
Granite — Snake River through Hells Canyon — Class IV Rapids
One of the most notorious rapids along the Snake River falls within Hells Canyon. It’s rumored that this rapid, Granite, is what originally drew out-of-state rafters into Idaho. Many of the original drops in this canyon now rest beneath the reservoir created by the Hells Canyon Dam. The Granite Rapid remains, drawing rafters in from around the country. The “green room” feature finds particular favor, as the Snake River pushes over a bus-sized boulder creating an ocean-magnitude wave.
3. Payette River
A popular destination near Boise, the Payette River offers some lovely and thrilling whitewater in Idaho. Three specific sections of the river exist, drawing crowds for rafting at various points. The most notorious is the Blackadar section with Class III and IV rapids for intermediate to advanced rafters only. Elsewhere in the South Fork, North Fork, or Main Payette River, inexperienced rafters may enjoy the stunning beauty around the river as they face Class II and III rapids more safely.
Banks to Beehive Bend — Main Payette River — Class II to III Rapids
Iconic Idaho views may be spotted along the Banks to Beehive Bend course, flowing at Class II and III whitewater. This area is suitable for newbies to the sport, looking for some excitement on the whitewater rivers in Idaho. The river trip starts near the community of Banks, near the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Payette River.
Staircase and Canyon Runs — South Fork Payette River – Class IV Rapids
Through the South Fork of the Payette River, scenic miles for paddling wend their way along into the fast-flowing Staircase Run. Next, the Staircase Run provides several Class IV rapids spread over 4.5 miles of rushing whitewater. A mandatory portage is required along the Canyon Run, across the 40-foot Big Falls.
You’ll find many outfitters offer raft trips through this area, with the 25-rapid Canyon Run among the most popular.
Blackadar — South Fork of the Payette River — Class III to IV Rapids
For more experienced to highly adventurous rafters, Blackadar on the South Fork offers plenty of excitement with its Class III to IV whitewater. Within 20 minutes of each other, three major rapids hit, delighting paddlers with the rush. The rapid comes right after the portage of Big Falls near the Canyon Run.
4. St. Joe River — Class II to III Rapids
For the less experienced, but still thrill-seeking paddlers, the St. Joe River happens to be one of the best whitewater rivers in Idaho. The river offers some Class IV rapids, but much of the way is paved with Class II and Class III whitewater. The scenic river in the Idaho panhandle flows down into Lake Coeur d’Alene and sometimes has the nickname of Shadowy Saint Joe. The reason? The ambling river flow downward seems calm and sleepy at the headwaters. But, as the waters rush along, Class II and Class III rapids appear.
Most St. Joe River trips may be completed in a partial or full day, with several pull-out options along the way. A few outfitters come alongside folks needing the equipment and guide, but many folks opt for self-supported trips instead.
The best times to raft the St. Joe River fall between early June and early July.
5. Clearwater River — Class I to II Rapids
The majority of the Clearwater River flows along through Class I and Class II rapids, making this river the perfect choice for families seeking adventure. The river in north-central Idaho is formed by the confluence of the Lochsa and Selway Rivers. Here, the two raging waterways converge and mellow out into a wide river with easy rapids perfect for inexperienced rafters.
Access the river via Highway 12 and enter the gentle flow for paddling, floating, and other casual river experiences. Most trips will take place in less than a day through the stunning scenic waterway.
6. Selway River — Class II to IV Rapids
Situated in north-central Idaho, Selway River descends down from the Bitterroot Mountains over a nearly 8,000-foot elevation drop over its 100-mile run. The river falls under the protection of the Wild and Scenic River conservation, with the appeal heavily landing on the solitude of the location. Only a few trips are permitted by the Forest Service along the river each day. Professional guide companies also have limits set.
Many trips take off from the Paradise Boating Site at the confluence of White Cap Creek and Selway River. Class II and Class III rapids greet paddlers along the way, particularly in the Goat Creek Rapid and Slalom Slide Rapid.
7. Lochsa River — Class II to IV Rapids
Roughly 70 miles long from start to finish, the Lochsa River flows within the Nez Pearce-Clearwater National Forest. The river curves its way down from high elevations, collecting snow melt along the way for a chilly river from the Bitterroot Mountains. The Wild and Scenic River offers technical challenges for experienced paddlers during most trips of one to three days total.
The Wilderness Gateway Campground on Highway 12 brings two popular sections of the river together for easy access for folks visiting. Between May and July, the river flows with Class IV rapids, unfit for beginners. The rest of the year, the water levels drop and become more feasible for newbies. Famous rapids known as the Grim Reaper Rapid and the Lochsa Falls should never be attempted by beginners.
Upriver from Wilderness Gateway, numerous sections of intense rapids greet paddlers, drawing in folks looking for a technical challenge without the crowds.
8. Moyie River — Class II to III Rapids
Tucked away into northern Idaho, 30 minutes north of Bonners Ferry, the Moyie River offers comfortable, yet exciting, rapids for beginners to adventure along. The 10-mile stretch near Bonners Ferry is the ideal place to put in for newbies to the sport, the right distance and rapids for a partial or full day trip.
The beautiful scenery along the way certainly doesn’t hurt the argument for this whitewater river in Idaho, either. The river flows through a narrow gorge with cedar and pine. You could spot wildlife along the riverbanks and will see plenty of other gorgeous views. The best time to raft Moyie River is May to June and many outfitters offer reasonable tour options for folks of varying skill levels.
9. Bruneau River — Class II to V Rapids
Carving its way through 40 miles of desert canyon, Bruneau River offers rapids Classes II to V. Stunning, red rock landscape greets the eyes while bubbling rapids brew up adventure on the water. Less known than other parts of the state for whitewater rafting, Bruneau River finds fewer crowds paddling its waters.
Paddling the entire river takes at least three days, but there are tour groups that lead partial courses through the water, allowing folks to take a day or more along the way. Be warned that paddling on your own could be dangerous, though, as rapids reach up to Class V in the Cave Rapid and 5-Mile Rapid, a long, exhausting journey for anyone.
Summary of the 9 Best Rivers for Whitewater Rafting in Idaho
|4||St. Joe River||ll to lll|
|5||Clearwater River||l to ll|
|6||Selway River||ll to lV|
|7||Lochsa River||ll to lV|
|8||Moyie River||ll to lll|
|9||Bruneau River||ll to V|
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Jim Black/Shutterstock.com
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